Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): Causes, Risk Factors, Symptoms, and Treatment

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The symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can be embarrassing, but you don’t have to suffer in silence. IBS is more common than you think, particularly in women. Worldwide, it’s estimated that 10 – 15% of the population has IBS; about 2 in 3 IBS sufferers are female and 1 in 3 are male[1]. IBS affects people of all ages, even children. 

What Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common condition that affects the digestive system. It causes symptoms like bloating, constipation, cramps, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. These tend to come and go over time, and can last for days, weeks, or months at a time. 

IBS is also known as irritable colon, spastic colitis, mucous colitis, and spastic colon. It is a separate condition from inflammatory bowel disease and isn’t related to other bowel conditions. IBS is a collection of intestinal symptoms that usually occur together. The symptoms vary in duration and severity from one person to another; however, they last at least three months for at least three days per month. 

Although IBS doesn’t pose a serious threat to one’s health, it can have an adverse effect on a person’s quality of life. The exact causes of IBS are unknown. 

How Common Is IBS?

IBS is one of the most common gastrointestinal conditions affecting people of all ages, even children. It is estimated that that 10 – 15% of the world’s population has IBS. About 2 in 3 IBS sufferers are female and 1 in 3 are male. 

Irritable Bowel Syndrome Causes

While there are several things known to trigger IBS symptoms, the exact cause is not known. 

Factors that appear to play a role in causing this condition, include:

  • Inflammation in the intestines. Some people with IBS has been found to have an increased number of immune-system cells in their intestines. This immune-system response is linked with pain and diarrhea. 
  • Changes in bacteria in the gut. Microflora are the ‘good’ bacteria that reside in the intestines and they play a key role in health. Research suggests that microflora in people with IBS might differ from microflora in health people.
  • Muscle contractions in the intestine. The walls of the intestines are lined with layers of muscle that contract as they move food through the digestive tract. Contractions that last longer and are stronger than normal can cause bloating, gas, and diarrhea. On the other hand, weak intestinal contractions can slow food passage and lead to dry, hard stools. 
  • Nervous system. Abnormalities in the nerves in your digestive system may cause you to experience discomfort when your abdomen stretches from gas or stool. Poorly coordinated signals between the brain and intestines can cause your body to overreact to changes that normally occur in the digestive process, resulting in constipation, pain, or diarrhea. 
  • Severe infection. IBS can develop after a severe bout of diarrhea caused by a virus or bacteria. IBS might also be linked with a surplus of bacteria in the intestines. 

Irritable Bowel Syndrome Risk Factors

Many people experience occasional signs and symptoms of IBS. However, you are more likely to experience IBS if you:

  • Are female. About 2 in 3 IBS sufferers are female.
  • Are young. IBS occurs more frequently in people under 50 years old.
  • Have a family history of IBS. Genetics may play a role, as may shared factors in a family’s environment. Or, it could be a combination of genes and environment.
  • Have a mental health problem. Anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues are associated with IBS. A history of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse might also be a risk factor. 

Irritable Bowel Syndrome Symptoms

Some of the symptoms of IBS include:

  • Abdominal pain. The most common complain among people with IBS is cramping or abdominal pain. The discomfort typically starts shortly after eating and may go away after a bowel movement; however, that is not always the case. 
  • Excessive gas. Perhaps the most embarrassing symptom of IBS is excessive gas. Publicly passing gas can be mortifying. 
  • Bloating. IBS can result in stomach swelling – to the point that you can’t fit into your normal clothes. So, if you find that your pants fit tighter after eating, it could be a sign of IBS. 
  • Constipation or Diarrhea. Bouts of constipation or diarrhea – or sometimes fluctuating between the two states – are other common symptoms of IBS. People with IBS often feel that they need to stay home or near a bathroom for these reasons. 
  • Mucus in stool. It’s normal to pass a small amount of mucus in your stool. However, people with IBS may notice increased amounts of mucus in their stool.

Women with IBS may experience more symptoms during their menstrual periods. 

Also, for reasons that aren’t completely understood, IBS can also cause symptoms in other parts of your body, as well as in your bowel. Some of these symptoms include:

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  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Burping 
  • Lower back pain
  • Constant tiredness
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • A frequent and urgent need to urinate

Due to the discomfort, embarrassment, and pain often associated with IBS, some people also experience feelings of anxiety and depression. 

The symptoms of IBS are often worse after eating. Most people also experience a flare-up of symptoms, lasting between 2 to 4 days, after which the symptoms improve or disappear altogether. 

Irritable Bowel Syndrome Treatment

There is no single cure for IBS, but there are certain things that you can do to manage your symptoms. And since no single treatment works for everyone, you and your doctor need to work together to find the right treatment plan based on your condition. 

Treatment may include:

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  • Changing your diet. Foods do not cause IBS, but eating certain foods may trigger IBS symptoms. You can ease the symptoms of IBS by changing some of your eating habits. Modifying amounts or completely eliminating certain foods, such as beans, indigestible sugars, fried foods, and dairy may help to reduce different IBS symptoms. For some people, adding herbs and spices such as chamomile, peppermint, and ginger has helped to reduce some IBS symptoms.

Other ways to ease IBS symptoms are:

  • Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet
  • Eating more high-fiber foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • Avoiding large meals, which can result in cramping and diarrhea in people with IBS
  • Drinking 6 – 8 glasses of water a day, especially for people with diarrhea
  • Taking medications. If your symptoms do not improve through home remedies, such as dietary or lifestyle changes, your doctor may recommend the use of medications. Some medications are used to treat all symptoms of IBS, while others are focused on specific symptoms. Some medications often prescribed to people with IBS include:
  • Anti-diarrheal medications, such as loperamide control diarrhea
  • Fiber supplements, such as psyllium to help control constipation
  • Antispasmodic agents, such as dicyclomine or peppermint oil to slow contractions in the bowel, which may help with pain and diarrhea
  • Antidepressants, such as an SSRI or a tricylcic antidepressant if symptoms include pain or depression
  • IBS medication – a medication known as Lubiprostone is FDA-approved for women with severe IBS-C (constipation)
  • Stress relief and counseling. Many people who seek care for IBS also have panic, anxiety, or depression. Stress is also an issue for people with IBS because it can aggravate the symptoms. Research suggest that psychological therapy can help ease IBS symptoms. Therapies that can help reduce the feelings of anxiety and stress include:
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a short-term treatment that combines different types of therapies and behavioral strategies. The type of CBT used to treat IBS may focus on managing life stress management. Or, it may focus on changing how a person responds to anxiety about the symptoms of IBS.
  • Dynamic psychotherapy. Dynamic psychotherapy is an intensive, short-term form of talk therapy. It may focus on in-depth discussions about the connection between emotions and symptoms. The therapy may also help people identify and resolve interpersonal conflicts. 

The Takeaway

IBS is more common than you think, particularly in women. Worldwide, it’s estimated that 10 – 15% of the population has IBS; about 2 in 3 IBS sufferers are female and 1 in 3 are male. However, IBS affects people of all ages, even children. 

While there are several things known to trigger IBS symptoms, the exact cause is not known. Factors that appear to play a role in causing this condition, include inflammation in the intestines, changes in bacteria in the gut, muscle contractions in the intestine, abnormalities in the nerves in your digestive system, and severe infection. Also, while many people experience occasional signs and symptoms of IBS, you are more likely to experience the condition if you are young, female, have a family history of IBS, or have a mental health problem. 

There is no single cure for IBS, but there are certain things that you can do to manage your symptoms, including dietary and lifestyle changes, taking medications, and stress relief and counseling.

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